This week I’ve been re-reading Ernest Adam’s excellent ‘Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling’ and thinking some more about the opening to ME3. At first glance, it seems like Bioware have stumbled into what Adams describes as ‘Violations of… internal consistency’ – that is, drawing attention to the game’s party member limitations by having party members arrive and leave under fairly arbitrary circumstances. But, the more I thought about this, the more it seemed like what had actually happened was what happens a lot when it comes to interactive storytelling – Bioware had been forced to choose the lesser of multiple evils.
Let’s break this down. What actually happens is: You begin the mission with Kaiden and James. You find Liara. James is sent back to the shuttle to guard it/ensure an escape route if the Cerberus forces become too much. I’ve already mentioned several reasons why this isn’t particularly convincing. But what are the alternatives?
Well, you could start the game with only one party member as in ME2. But this has some problems in and of itself. Say we take Kaiden (or Ashley, of course. I used Kaiden in my playthrough, because forget that xenophobe!). This eliminates the need to send someone away when you meet Liara, and means Kaiden is there, ready and waiting to get decked by the intriguing evil Cerberus robot Dr Eva. But what about James? Even if the player is familiar with the franchise, they won’t know James because he’s a new character. But he isn’t supposed to be completely new to Shepherd – they’re already supposed to have an established working relationship. You could cover this outside of a mission, allowing the player to choose to meet James aboard the Normandy and infer details of his pre-existing relationship with Shepherd from that. But that leaves James potentially under-developed, and likely to seem more like a new introduction than the seasoned crew-member he’s supposed to be.
Okay, so we take James. This means we understand that James has been aboard the Normandy a while, has earned Shepherd’s trust and respect and vice versa. But now Kaiden’s left behind on the Normandy. How does he get trounced by Eva and end up in Huerta Memorial to provide a strong emotional thread? Well, the best solution I could come up with is this:
James, Liara and Shepherd take Eva down and, believing they’ve deactivated her, take her back to the Normandy. It’s at this point we realise Kaiden is onboard the Normandy, majoring it up like a pro, but introducing him later doesn’t really matter, as he’s an established character, and for players joining the franchise at this point… meh. Kaiden could be particularly unhappy about having the robot onboard because of his mistrust of Cerberus, and therefore insists on overseeing securing it in that room that is for some reason only accessible via the med bay, a design decision that never made sense to me. Anyway, as Kaiden’s about to confirm to EDI that Eva’s secure, she reboots and attacks him. This forces EDI to take control of Eva to prevent Kaiden’s death, rather than EDI just deciding to do it on a whim.
Of course, it’s very easy to make these kind of changes with the benefit of hindsight, and without the pressures of time and budget constraints. Perhaps incapacitating Eva wasn’t considered an impressive enough climax to the first mission. Perhaps this would have required an additional cut scene to do it justice (although I’d argue cutting the Eva scene short initially and not bothering having James crash land the shuttle for no real reason other than to show his gungho attitude would allow budget to extend the scene where EDI inhabits Eva a little – it would essentially just mean moving some of the Eva/Kaiden action here.) Perhaps it was felt that deeper interaction between Kaiden/Shepherd was needed to give greater meaning to Kaiden’s accident, or that Shepherd had to witness it to for greater emotional authenticity. (Again, I’d argue against this, as I’d say Ashley’s offscreen death in ME1 was just as powerful as, say, Morden’s onscreen one in ME3) Regardless, the more you start to pick apart story decisions like this, the more you begin to realise just how many constraints games writers are operating within. My version isn’t necessarily better – as I mentioned, there are still potential problems with character development and relationships, and there’s the additional problem of having less of a reason to explore the Citadel early on (because Kaiden is hospitalised after Palaven rather than before) – it’s just a different solution. All game writers can really do is strive to find the best fit solution in the time they have, which is what makes games writing so difficult and so exciting.
EDIT: Rewatching the beginning again, James’ position in relation to Shephard is explained in the first cut scene prior to any missions kicking off, so it really isn’t necessary for him to be on that first mission. I love being right.